In my previous article, Movies You Should Read For Kids I stated that no book can easily be translated into a film or a play. The stage and screen have limitations and so cannot possibly catch the fullness of words themselves, where movies have limitations, books have pure freedom.
I also mentioned that a book, in order to become a movie must go under a metamorphosis that is conducted by someone other than the original author. These screen writers are like surgeons, snipping and cutting away parts on a book that cannot be filmed or trimming the book down, so it will fit into a two to three-hour time limit. It truly is impossible for a book to be fully captured in a film. Though it must be admitted that some films have come close.
Here is a list of ten adult books that have been made into films. For some the titles has been changed, some went straight from book to musical, others went from book to play to musical. All have the same thing in common, it is impossible to tell the whole story in a movie.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
The Sound of Music is based on the memoirs of Maria Augusta Trapp which was titled The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and published in 1949. In her book Maria tells her own story of how after becoming a postulant at Nunnberg Abbey in Austria she developed headaches which made the Mother Superior determined to send her out of the convent to be a teacher for the Captain Von Trapp’s daughter Maria who was sickly. Upon arriving at the house, she eventually befriends all seven of the motherless children and teaches them to sing together.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is a cornucopia of memories of a bygone era. Maria does not fall in love with the captain so much as she does the children. Her reminisces of pre WW2 Austria are beautiful and sentimental.
The problem with The Sound of Music is that it only covers half the book. It stops at the family fleeing Nazi occupied Austria. The book takes us much further. The family’s arrival in America, their first concert tour, Maria’s education in the English language and their eventual settlement in Stowe Vermont.
Maria Von Trap was an amazing woman. Her faith and determination got the family through many hard times. Not the least being the death of her husband, The Captain. Maria has a total of 5 books to her credit. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, A Family on Wheels a sequel, When King Was Carpenter a history of the early life of Jesus Christ, Yesterday Today and Forever another life of Christ and Maria a full autobiography where we learn all the details she left out of her other books.
It’s good not to forget that the Trapp family was a real family. They were a popular singing act that toured these United States and Europe. Recordings of the family are available from Itunes and Apple Music.
The Von Trapp family still resides in Stowe Vermont and runs a successful ski lodge. Some of Maria’s grand children and great grand children still perform as singers.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is a musical legacy that will last down the centuries.
Auntie Mame, written by Patrick Dennis and published in 1955 is the story of that one member of everyone’s family who is just a little different.
Auntie Mame was first brought to the stage as a successful Broadway play in 1956. It was a starring Role for Rosalind Russell who would go on to star in the film version of the play taking most of the Broadway cast with her.
Actress after actress has played the role of Mame. In fact it was one of the most sought after roles of all time. But Mame wouldn’t rest there. In the middle of the turbulent sixties Auntie Mame would come back to Broadway only this time as an all out musical with songs by Jerry Herman who had just come away from a run away hit called Hello Dolly. The title would be shortened to simply Mame and would star the marvelous Angela Lansbury.
But Mame wouldn’t rest there either so in 1974 the musical was translated to the screen and starred Lucille Ball. Sadly the film version of the musical was miscast. Miss Ball was far too old to play the mad cap aunt. And though it is awesome to have the musical on film, it’s time for it to be redone.
Auntie Mame is the story of Patrick Dennis who after the death of his father in Chicago goes to live with his Auntie Mame in her Beekman Place home in New York City. Auntie Mame is not what Patrick expects. The is the 1920s and Mame is in full flapper mode. She drinks, smokes and has all kinds of crazy ideas of how a little boy should be raised. Patrick is sent to an experimental school, he learns how to mix drinks and he is given a notebook to write down all the words he doesn’t understand so Auntie can explain them to him later.
This wonderland does not last for long. Patrick also has a trustee who after finding out about the way Mame is raising Patrick quickly sends him off to boarding school. It is now that the great depression hits and Mame loses everything, that is until she marries a rich southern plantation owner. And this is only about a quarter of the book.
The great thing about the playwrights and screen writers of Auntie Mame is that they were masterful surgeons. There was no way to capture all of the escapades and fun that is Auntie Mame so they give us snap shot after snap shot of this wonderful woman and leave us to find the delights of the original book on our own. As Auntie Mame says, “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.”
Auntie Mame isa book that has the distinction of having a book written about her many incarnations. But Darling I’m Your Auntie Mame is by Richard Tyler Jordan and a great read at any time.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING
The Once and Future King was written by TH White and published as a whole in 1958 but it is a collection of shorter novels that were first published between 1938 and 1941. The book is better known by it’s two movie titles, The Sword in the Stone and Camelot.
The Once and Future King is the legend of Arthur and his knights of The Round Table. It gets its title from the a legend the promises that Arthur will come back at the time of England’s greatest need.
The story of King Arthur is the stuff of class room books and very much a part of our growing up. Much like Robin Hood or Superman. The boy who pulls the sword out of the stone and becomes king of England is known to almost everyone in the western world. His story has been told by great writers like Thomas Mallory and Stephen Lawhead. Many films have been made of the great king but few have captured his full story and the two mentioned above fall into that category.
The Once and Future King is much like The Lord of the Rings Its scope is vast and difficult to capture. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The One and Future King, while telling a story of the past, is commenting on the situations in our present day society. It is both dramatic and funny but it is also adventurous and sentimental.
White’s take on the Arthurian legends is very different from others. His Merlin is not so much a prophet as a man with a good memory. Merlin lives backwards. His memories are your future. He is still a wizard and can conjure with the best of them. White’s take on all of the legends of the roundtable is the same. They are never quite how we remember them from our story book versions.
The Sword in the Stone is the first book in The Once and Future King and was animated by Walt Disney in 1963. This movie tells the story of how Arthur became king and stops there. Disney is never one to stick close to a book and in many ways in more more comfortable with a butchers knife than a surgeons scalpel when writing a screen play so much of the book is lost in this film.
Camelot tells the rest of the story of Arthur but focuses much on the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur’s Queen. Camelot is also a musical with a great score by Lerner and Lowe but it to uses a butcher knife on the book and we get just a small portion of the whole tale.
The Once and Future King is a must read for all Anglophiles. It also should be read by those who love The Matter of Britain and anyone who loves a great adventure with magic and a little humor thrown in.
THE KING AND I
The King and I is the first biographical work that Rodgers and Hammerstein brought to the New York stage. It is based on the book Anna and The King of Siam which was published in 1943, Anna and The King of Siam was based on The English Governess and the Siamese Court published in 1870 which are the memoirs of Anna Leonowens the heroine of the story.
Both the books and the musical as well as the film story of Anna tell how Mrs. Leonowens went to Siam as a teacher for the Kings children and how her western habits and personality affected the life of a very eastern court.
The story is funny and at times alarming. The King and Anna slowly come to know and respect each other if not actually like one another. The films want to show you a hint of a possible romance between the two but this is not realistic considering the times and the culture where this takes place. Anna is a teacher and the king seems to want to learn as much as he wants his children taught.
Anna and the King of Siam first hit the screen in 1946 with Rex Harrison as the king and Irene Dunn as Anna. The musical retitled The King and I debuted on Broadway in 1951 as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence but the show was stolen from her by Yul Brynner whose intense performance of the king had audiences mesmerized. Brynner would go on to play The King more than 5000 times. He would reprise his role for the film with Deborah Kerr as Anna. Gertrude Lawrence Passed away in 1952.
This was not the end of the story of Anna and the King another film version of the story would be done in 1999 this time starring Jodie Foster as Anna. This was neither musical nor a light film as the version done in 1946 but solid drama.
Anna and The King of Siam is another book where a scalpel was taken and used to form a wonderful film and musical, but there is so much more to the story and it deserves to be read as a whole. After all much happens when East meets West.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
And Then There Were None was written by the queen of mystery the great Agatha Christie and was published in 1939. It is ranked as the fourth best selling book of all time. It has had two titles over the years. The first was Ten Little Niggers after the British Blackface song which is a major plot point in the novel. When released in the United States it was retitled And The There Were None. That title has remained consistent in all subsequent printing. The Rhyme in the first edition featured niggers, that would be replaced by Indians and then replaced by soldier boys. As Mrs. Christie’s social conscience grew the rhyme changed shape.
This book as had both theatrical and film versions done of the story. The first was done in 1946 and starred Barry Fitzgerald. There have been three other English versions of the film made the last was done by the BBC as a miniseries in 2015. This last comes very close to the actual book but its script is plodding and being on a remote island where some one is being killed every few hours plodding should never happen.
The story revolves around 7 guests and 3 employees who are invited to stay and or work at a large house on an island off the coast of England. On the first night all ten of the characters are accused of various crimes and are one by one murdered. The book is brilliantly written and keeps you holding your breath until the murderer is revealed. The movies, though for the most part well done, want the ending to be different from the book. They want a love story to be told and so most of the films miss the spirit of the book. The book is about justice being done no matter the cost.
And Then There Were None is a great movie. The 1946 version is probably the best of the lot, but you may have your own favorite version. The book is richer than the films and it is complete. If you haven’t read And Then There Were None you missed a great experience.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
The Lord of the Rings or LOTR, as it has become affectionately known as, is a sequel to JRR Tolkien’s earlier children’s work The Hobbit. Though the Hobbit was published in the 1930s with great popularity it would take Tolkien almost twenty years to complete his sequel. LOTR would not be just a sequel it would be more than that. It would no longer be a children’s book. It would turn into something completely different and begin a new genre of books all on it’s own.
The Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo Baggins and his friends who set off on a quest for mount doom where the great ring of power, the very ring his Uncle Bilbo stumbled upon in The Hobbit, must be cast into the fire and destroyed.
The Lord of the Rings is one story told across three books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. No book stands on its own. Each is a continuation of the previous. Even The Hobbit is a continuation of a book Tolkien would never live to see published The Silmarillion.
The story of The Lord of the Rings has been attempted to be put on film only a few times. Rankin Bass animated the Hobbit and then attempted to animate The Return of the King the last book in the Tolkien trilogy. Ralph Bakshi took a chance at bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen but he only completed part one of his work and left us somewhere in the middle of the second book, The Two Towers. It would take Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema to finally bring the whole story to the big screen and an excellent job they did too. Jackson made the movie in three sections, just like the book and released over a three-year period. He and his screen writers were also like surgeons cutting and adding skillfully to the story. There was no way Jackson would ever be able to make the millions of Tolkien fans out there completely happy. But he came close. His last film, The Return of the King was even nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.
Still there are problems in the films. Tolkien did his job too well and though Jackson did an excellent job of capturing the story, he could never capture all of it. The reader of LOTR is a lucky person. First time readers are almost always struck by the beauty of the authors prose. Tolkien built his own world and was very detailed in that building. You come to love Middle Earth so much that it becomes as real to you as your own home and that is Tolkien’s genius. There are very few people who once they read The Lord of the Rings don’t go back to read it again and again.
PT Barnum is probably one of the most fascinating people of the 18th century. Barnum didn’t just see the possibilities of the circus but the possibilities of all forms of entertainment. It is just to say without Barnum, Universal, Warner Brothers and even The Walt Disney Studios may not exist. Barnum realized, during his lifetime, that people now had leisure time, especially those living in the cities and suburbs and that leisure time needed to be filled with fun things that the whole family could enjoy. This was when the industrial revolution was in full swing.
Factories were being built and more men and women were moving off the farms to find a different kind of life. A real middle class was also coming into fruition. Education was becoming a much stronger force and so teachers were in demand as well as office workers and management positions. These jobs came with free time and Barnum was out to exploit that free time for everyone’s benefit.
In His life time Barnum made the museum accessible as well as lectures of popular topics to the every-man. He promoted classical music to the masses and of course he revolutionized the circus.
Barnum’s life has been made into both films and stage plays, made for TV movies and Broadway musicals. There are many sources for the material about Barnum’s life, he wrote his own autobiography, but the one that stand out the most is THAT FABULOUS SHOWMAN by Irving Wallace. Wallace’s book is not heavy he takes a straightforward look at the life of a man that made a real business out of show business.
Barnum’s theatrical life story is much like his life a lot of glitz and glitter. None of the film versions are really true to the man, case in point the recent film Musical starring Hugh Jackman. They are however true to the man who is credited as saying, “There is a sucker born every minute.”
Lost Horizon was written by James Hilton and published in 1933. It is interesting to note that the book itself and the earliest film version which was released in 1937 both debuted between the two worst wars are planet has ever fought.
Lost Horizon is the story of Hugh Conway. Conway is on a plane escaping a city at war with other English passengers. Unbeknownst to him the plane has been hijacked and eventually crashes in the snow-covered Himalayan mountains. The pilate dies on impact buy Conway and his companions are rescued and taken to the hidden valley of Shangri La. There they find a temple and a people who live happily contented lives far from the world. There are secrets at Shangri La though, secrets that involve Conway himself and alter the lives of all of his companions.
Lost Horizon was originally made in to a film in 1937. The Film was directed by Frank Capra and had a star-studded cast. In the 1970s it was made into a film again only this time as a musical with music by Burt Bacharach.
The films capture the essence of the book very well. A hidden valley ruled by Llamas where all the great treasure of the world are being collected. Music, books, poetry and drama so at the time when man has finaaly finished with his wars he will find a place where those treasure still exist. What the films can’t capture is the beauty of Hilton’s prose. His words are haunting, and the book haunts you long after you finish reading it.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
There is a basic problem with Murder of the Orient Express. If you’ve seen the movie you basically ruined the book and if you’ve read the book there is almost no point in seeing the movie. And yet Murder on the Orient Express has been made into a movie 4 separate times. Each time with a wonderful cast but not always a wonderful script.
Murder on the Orient Express was written by Agatha Christie and was published in 1934. It was published in the United States the same year under a different title, Murder in the Calais Coach. This was to avoid confusion with a Graham Greens novel that was also being published. Today when the book is published it is Murder on the Orient Express everywhere.
Murder of the Orient Express features Mrs. Christie’s most popular detective, The Belgium, Hercule Poirot. Miss Christie introduced Poirot in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles which was published in 1922. The last Poirot novel, Curtain, was written many years before Mrs. Christie died but was not allowed to be published until after the author’s death which occurred in 1976.
Murder on the Orient Express tells the story of a murder that takes place on a snowbound train in Europe. Poirot is one of the passengers and is enlisted to solve the crime before the train is dug out and proceeds to its next destination. All the passengers as well as the crew have airtight alibis and the puzzle seems almost unsolvable until…
The film version of Murder on the Orient Express hinges on one Character being played right. Hercule Poirot. He is the driving force of the story and has so many idiosyncrasies himself that the other characters all pale in comparison to him. That is the trouble with the films. Out of the four only two come close. Albert Finney gives a magnificent performance as the little Belgium in the 1974 version and David Suchet gave us an almost perfect portrayal in 2010. The 2010 script was a bit weak and so did not live up to the grandeur of the 1974 version.
The 2017 version was almost a complete disaster with Kenneth Branagh playing Poirot. Poirot is never physical in any way. He relies on his “little grey cells” and never his muscles. Fighting in any way would disrupt his wardrobe and Poirot is foremost a dandy. Branagh attempted to turn Poirot into an action detective and this did not sit well with Christie fans at all.
Reading Murder on the Orient Express is pure pleasure. This is a book for long winter nights, a fireplace a cup of tea and classical music playing in the background. If you are a movie buff see the film, but read the book first, it’s conclusion may stun on the screen but it dazzles on the page.
NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA
Nicholas and Alexandra was written by Robert K Massie and published in 1967. The film version of the story debuted in 1971. The Film starred Michael Jayston as Nicholas, Janet Suzman as Alexandra and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker as Rasputin.
No film could ever give you more than a small taste of the sweeping true story pf The Tzar Nicholas and his Queen, their family and the end of Russian Royalty at the beginning of the 20th century.
The story is fantastic, mysterious, mystical, political, dramatic and tragic and it’s all true. Massie writes a tour de force history that reads like a novel but is pure truth or as much as could be ascertained.
The drama of the Romanov story could not be ignored by playwrights or film makers. There have been many books plays and movies that have portrayed this tragic tale. As sub category the Tzar’s youngest daughter Anastasia has been the central focus of at least three of the film versions of the story.
As history tells us the body of Anastasia was never discovered and it was conjectured that she was still alive. This rumor grew, and many women claimed to be the lost princess most all were found to be impostors. One however held her ground until the day she died. It was only recently with the discovery of DNA and the finding of more bodies at a second burial area that the truth of Anastasia’s death was revealed.
Anastasia’s story was made into a movie in 1956 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. The story was retold as an animated musical fantasy with Meg Ryan as Anna and voice co-starring John Cusack and Kelsey Grammer. The animated musical was reworked for The Broadway stage and opened in 2017. The Broadway show took out the fantasy added some new songs and made the Russian government Anna’s enemy.
In 2012 Massie published the end of the Romanov story in his book, The Romanovs The Final Chapter. This begins in 1991 when nine skeletons were exhumed from a mass grave in Siberia. These skeletons held the key to the end of the tragic tale. But not the end of the west’s infatuation with Russia and it’s strange last days as an empire.
The question will never really be answered. Which was better the movie or the book? It will go on and on as long as people have eyes both to watch and read with. The best part is that we can do both. It’s probably best not to get too involved in those discussions. Film making tells the story in one way and a writer tells it in his. A film maker may make a story come to life, but a writer gives you the parts of the story that cannot be seen on a screen. Whether you’re headed out today to your local movie house or your book store enjoy the time of letting your mind run wild in both truth and fiction.